While he won’t be the man picking up the 2018 LONGINES World’s Best Jockey award in Hong Kong on Friday night, Christophe Lemaire is undoubtedly the hottest rider in the global game right at this moment, having landed five Grade 1 successes in the space of just 13 days on the Japan Racing Association calendar in October and November.
The bookends to that spree were the Shuka Sho and Japan Cup victories of emerging superstar Almond Eye, while Lemaire has also just passed the 200-winner mark for the season, with a second JRA champion rider’s crown already guaranteed.
Now the 39-year-old Frenchman heads into Sunday’s LONGINES HKIR meeting with a full book of four rides and will partner two of Japan’s leading hopes in Deirdre (Cup) and Mozu Ascot (Mile).
Lemaire had already been considered part of the European elite for a decade or more when the opportunity arose to sit the oral and written exams for a full JRA licence ahead of the 2015 season, joining Mirco Demuro as the first foreign-born jockeys to be allowed permanent status in Japan.
Almond Eye and Lemaire winning the Grade 1 Japan Cup (2400m) at Tokyo, picture Japan Racing Association
Not that he was coming to the JRA as an unknown quantity, thanks to a love affair with the country’s racing culture sparked as a 21-year-old by Patrick Barbe, a long-time friend and ally to the Yoshida Family and husband of Lemaire’s riding agent, Helen.
“I’ve been going to Japan every winter for the last 18 years and it pretty quickly became a second home. The standard of racing is exceptional with great facilities. I gradually adapted to the culture and when the chance came up to apply for the permanent licence, I didn’t hesitate. In France I didn’t have a major contract to honour at the time and felt I wasn’t quite in the form I once had been and so I needed a new challenge, something to fire up my motivation again.
“I knew that, if I went to Japan, both myself and my family would have a very nice life and that it would be a great experience for all of us.”
Lemaire had already spent successful stints in two of the best jobs in French racing, first as retained rider to the Niarchos Family and latterly fulfilling the same role with His Highness the Aga Khan, with whom he will once again join forces in this Sunday’s LONGINES
Hong Kong Vase aboard Eziyra.
“We are in a competitive job and the most important thing is winning,” says Lemaire, whose easy-going and open personality should never be mistaken for a lack of desire to beat the opposition.
“Whether I am in France or Japan, that doesn’t change. I’d achieved a lot in France: I’d ridden for the best owners and trainers; won a lot of good races in Britain - my childhood dream was to ride at Ascot and Newmarket in the really historic races - but at that moment the competitor in me needed something new. I needed to leave.”
What no doubt helped Lemaire come to his decision was the unwavering support of wife Barbara and his two children, Lucas and Andrea.
In terms of where he now finds himself - both geographically and professionally - Lemaire might well pinpoint December 2005 as pivotal, thanks to a breakthrough victory in the Arima Kinen, where he drove Heart’s Cry to a stunning upset of Deep Impact.
He says: “It’s very important to get on a good horse pretty quickly because that gets you known and moves you up a step in the hierarchy of jockeys. A horse like him was important and created openings elsewhere.
“I was lucky enough to start riding good horses quite fast but it actually took me two winters to ride my first Grade 1, after being second a load of times, mostly getting beaten by Olivier Peslier!
“[Beating Deep Impact] certainly made some noise in Japan. Heart‘s Cry was already a well-known horse who had won good races and been second in the Derby but he was yet to win a really big one, having been beaten a nose by Alkaased in the Japan Cup.
“That was a really hard one to accept and I decided to be more aggressive on him in the Arima Kinen and we ended up beating Deep Impact.”
With nine Grade 1 victories and counting, as well as Yutaka Take’s record of 209 winners in a season now within tantalising reach, 2018 has been a marquee year for Lemaire.
But the competitor in him is far from sated ahead of his rides on Deirdre and Mozu Ascot, while Dermot Weld and John Size have been quick to snap up his services for Eziyra (Vase) and Ivictory in the Sprint.
Lemaire says: “After this year a win here would be the cherry on the cake but however your year has gone, Hong Kong is one of the big international meetings with great prize-money and atmosphere, and it’s always a place where you want to win.
“The Japanese horses I’m riding here have very good chances and have already shown themselves to be high quality. Now we want them to prove themselves abroad. In some ways victory is less of an expectation than it would be when they’re at home.”
Lemaire already has a success on Sha Tin’s biggest day locked away in the memory bank, ironically having broken Japanese hearts with the wonderful mare Pride, when just repelling Take on Admire Moon in the 2006 Hong Kong Cup.
I have great memories right up until the winning line, where I got quite a fright!” recalls Lemaire. “In her races she could pull very hard - she did in the mornings as well - but she had been more tractable when she won the Champion Stakes on her previous start
and in Hong Kong the race went near-perfectly.
“She picked up really well and then when she hit the front, she thought she’d done enough. Yutaka started to gain but with two taps of the whip she changed legs and pulled out a bit more. Admire Moon really finished well and when I crossed the line I didn’t know
if we’d won or lost, so it was frustrating not to be able to celebrate. When the result came and everyone around me started shouting with joy, my main feeling was one of relief.”
Victory on Pride was an important step in the evolution of Lemaire as a star beyond his own shores.
Twelve years on, having blazed his name across the racing year in Japan, he will be determined to once again finish with a final flourish on the world stage.